A Storytelling Serial
Are you reading this blog on a mobile device? If so and you'd like to subscribe to my occasional postings but don't see a blog sidebar for that option, please head to the bottom of this page on your device for subscription and other sidebar information, including quick links to archives. Thanks for taking the extra time to scroll!
As I sit to write this post, I feel restless. Distracted. Body parts are bothering me, and my mind keeps wandering to a half dozen projects in various stages of incompletion. More, I hear the siren call of play. I want to read a book, bake a pie, watch a video.
The weather matches my mood. After days of wind, a front has finally arrived, bringing rain that is turning to wet, blowing snow.
Inside and out, wildness. No order, no discipline, no focus.
How am I going to concentrate long enough to share anything helpful about maintaining attention in the midst of turbulence? If I’m lucky, these five steps will work.
Step One: Breathe
Close your eyes or stare into space. Slowly: Innnn. Outttt. Innnn. Twoooo. Innnn. Threee. Innnn . . .
Breathe for as long as you can hold the count, up to a maximum of thirty.
Then stop. You have stuff to get done. This is no time for a full-blown meditation session, regardless of how relaxing that might be.
Step Two: Choose Your Actions
Thoughts create feelings, but dealing with either is a time-consuming effort best saved till you don’t have something pressing you need to accomplish. First, simply acknowledge the thoughts and feelings as an uncontrollable presence. Then control what you can: the actions you’d take if you were focused, although you’re clearly not.
As I’ve described previously, actions are even more powerful than thoughts for creating feelings. You do it before you feel it.
So let your mind and your heart go where they wish, and allow your minor ailments to float around the edges. Postpone taming your squirrel nature. For now, choose to put your material self through the motions. Concentration won’t come if your body isn’t present.
Even when you can’t be there mentally and emotionally, be there physically. You may be surprised at the way your inner self catches up to your body.
Need to work or study? Position yourself so that you’re poised to turn on the computer or open the book. Get to the right screen or page. Stare at the words or numbers. Move your eyes or fingers. Scribble some notes.
Time to exercise? Suit up. Get to your workout spot or walk out the door. Regardless where your mind and heart are, hit the starting gate.
Step Three: Use the Messiness
Merriam-Webster has several definitions for focus, including those most relevant here: attention, concentration, emphasis, direction.
But what if you add the distractions, restlessness, temptations, and wildness to your focus? Perhaps you’re in a rut. Maybe you have a narrow expectation of the required direction, with a limited view of the process, the product, or both. And possibly your uncontrollable heart and mind want you to get the task done more creatively and a whole lot less rigidly.
Who says the attention, concentration, and emphasis that define focus need to march in a straight, predictable line? Go ahead—follow that squirrel and chase your tail around the trunk of a tree. Throw the undisciplined thoughts and feelings into what you’re trying to do and see where they lead.
You might end up blowing open the boundaries you’ve placed around your focus, discovering a broader scope, and accomplishing what you need to in a way and with results you never imagined when you were steady, settled, solid.
Instead of repeating your usual routine, start with the second thing you usually do. Heck, start at the end and work backwards. Temporarily change online backgrounds and fonts to interesting and bold colors. Instead of a blue pen or a number two pencil, use green ink and orange lead. Substitute jumping jacks for squats. Begin your daily walk or run by turning left rather than right.
Be loose. Be spontaneous. Intentionally lean into the chaos. Perhaps, paradoxically, this is how you will calm your inner turmoil.
Step Four: Polish It Later
When you launch the task and your brain and emotions are all over the place, you’re likely to do less than your best. The flow and the quality will be MIA.
But as you metaphorically or actually put one foot in front of the other, the process happens in spite of your lackluster participation. You’re gradually pulled into its sphere. At this point, you find yourself invested enough to start caring. And this is when you can course correct, surpassing the basic what of your task to home in on the higher-level how, moving from mindless steps to mindful results.
Maybe you end up having to reread a page (or a chapter), run the numbers again, organize a mess, clean up, edit, proofread, do a few more reps, take several additional steps, start over. So what? You might have had to redo part or all of the task, anyway. At least now you have something to build on.
Step Five: Stick with the Task till You Feel Good about Walking Away
No matter how little you initially brought to the party, once you’ve done something, anything, then stay until you can say, “At least I did this much”—because allowing restlessness and distraction to hijack your energy becomes a habit.
So does getting it done even when you’d rather be leaping from fence to fence.
Which pattern do you want to establish? It will be one or the other. You get to decide.
Later: Look at Those Pesky Thoughts and Feelings
At this point, are you still bouncing off the walls with the same thoughts and feelings you started with—or have they somehow drifted into the vapor? That’s the beauty of ignoring them while you take action. Thoughts and feelings are so fleeting that often, by the time you finish doing something concrete, the ephemeral is transformed.
Your aches and pains may have shifted by now, as well. But anything persistent or stronger needs close examination. Having accomplished what your body, heart, and mind cooperated with, don’t ignore a thought, feeling, or symptom that remains.
Regardless, remember to separate what you must do in this moment from the whirling maelstrom that scatters your focus. In the wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke (Book of Hours: Love Poems to God),
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Ah. Post finished, in spite of myself. It looks as if my trusty steps carried the day. Now for that pie . . .
Below, please let us know whether you have a tried-and-true method to get it done when all focus is gone!